Connecting neighbors

Public forum to discuss passenger train between Twin Cities and Eau Claire

Story by Courtney Kueppers, Managing Editor

Until the early 1960s, a passenger train departed from and arrived at a historic station, which was then a facet of Putnam Street in downtown Eau Claire. It’s a service members of a local coalition hope to bring back to the area: the Interstate 94 passenger rail.

Ned Noel, city planner for Eau Claire and member of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, said it is important for people to know, in terms of transportation options, the train is not dead.

The coalition, along with representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce and West Central Regional Planning Commission, will hold a public forum at 5 p.m. tomorrow at Chippewa Valley Technical College, 620 W. Clairemont Ave., to discuss a passenger train between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities.

“It’s another mode of transportation that someone can take,” Noel said. “It’s good for students who don’t have cars, and business people don’t have to be stuck commuting. There are all these different types of travel purposes, people don’t have to deal with traffic, weather, delays, congestion.”

Under the Federal Rail Administration, each state must prepare a Rail Plan. Eau Claire has been identified as a priority for a corridor by Minnesota’s plan, Dan Krom, MnDOT director of passenger rail, said. Tomorrow’s forum is meant to bring people up to speed on what Minnesota’s Rail Plan says, Krom said.

The Rail Plan is a Minnesota document, so the public forum which will be held in La Crosse is a good-faith outreach to gauge where things are at, Krom said, noting if things were to move forward, Wisconsin and Minnesota would need to reach an agreement.

Krom also noted newly re-elected governor Scott Walker has spoken out against the high-speed passenger rail.

“Our state has been kind of lackluster with passenger rail lately,” Noel said. “This is one of (MnDOT’s) phase-one projects and that is a big deal. We are advocating for a service that we once had in Eau Claire.”

Noel noted the project is a very long-term plan with no definitive start date because public transit is highly politicized and federal grants are hard to come by.

Mike Von Arx, a senior originally from the Twin Cities, said he thinks the railway is a good idea “because it would be a more economically efficient way to get to the Cities from Eau Claire.” However, Von Arx said he doesn’t think many upperclassmen students would use the transit because they often have cars.

“The idea would be a good idea for people in general to use one, but I feel like it would be expensive,” Von Arx said.

Ray Rismeyer, a senior from the Milwaukee area, said he would support a passenger train going to that area of the state from Eau Claire.

“I think it would be very convenient,” Rismeyer said. “It would save a lot of people a lot of money.”

West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition has been active since 1999, but Noel said despite the coalition being comprised of Republicans and Democrats alike he anticipated the next four years to be pretty boring on the topic of public transportation, adding Gov. Walker has said the state cannot afford a project such as this.

“Some Republican states do have this,” Noel said. “The demographics are starting to push it, younger people and baby boomers who can’t drive. If you can imagine what the interstate has done for travel, passenger trail can do that too.”